Learning Lessons from Change.gov


Early on in the Presidential Transition, Change.gov announced an incredibly compelling, never-before-done process: Your Seat at the Table. They announced that every document that the transition team received in a meeting where there was three or more attendees would be posted online. By anybody’s standards — much less a presidential transition this was an awesome step and the Change.gov team should be commended for taking it.

That said Change.gov team is learning as they go and looking at the implementations on Change.gov is an interesting opportunity to get some new transparency technology learning opportunities for the new administration.

My two takeaways:

  1. Government should be focusing first on providing access to data in as unrestricted of a way as possible and inviting developers to build interfaces on top of it, and
  2. Often times it is possible in this field to try too hard and to do too much work. A simple solution is sometimes a superior solution.

Here’s why– as of today on the “Your Seat at the Table” page:

  1. Several of the documents on the front page have dates in the future.
  2. You can only search once every 15 seconds.
  3. It looks like it just got caught up, but for several weeks (from Dec. 22 to about January 9th) the site was nearly dormant and had weeks of missing data.
  4. There’s not a clear message of what’s going to happen to the data after January 20th.

I’m certain that there’s a strong amount of effort being put on this by the administration and they’re taking it very seriously, but I wonder if they can really keep up with the documents they’re getting. Maybe there’s another way to do it.

Here’s the simpler approach. Maybe they should start by standardizing the names of the documents, and put them on an FTP server or an index-free http page; updating that FTP server when documents come in and are sanitized; writing one blog post pointing to the repository. In the blog post, say “people are encouraged to build their own search interfaces and browsing interfaces to the data as they see fit”

The result? You’ll likely have the Sunlight Labs community scrambling to build an interface, Watchdog.net parsing the data and incorporating it, and media organizations like the New York Times working on their own too. More eyeballs would be on the data, and they’d earn praise from the media and technology community for being participatory and more open.

Let me add one big caveat here: This effort by the Transition team is a special case. We know they have been moving at the government equivalent of light speed, and in a situation where they had no infrastructure to work with. What I suggest above would have the effect of deputizing outside help for an urgent and atypical problem. I’m not sure approach whether what I suggest above should be a general model for such work (though I am inclined that way), but it would have been away to do it better in this instance.

That being said, if you take a look at the data you’ll see a trend– when the data can be taken from the Government, people do more interesting things with it and it gets in front of more eyeballs. The Government should always be keeping a keen eye towards first making the data available to citizens, and then building tools and interfaces on top of it.

The point is this: This transparency business gets really tough if you make it tough, but if you’re looking for the easy way out, there’s likely a much simpler solution. And often the simpler ones end up being more sophisticated and impressive anyhow. Often times, the hardest part of being transparent and open is doing too much, rather than not enough.